When Robert Green played football at Navy from 1994 through 1996, not many of his teammates were choosing the Marine Corps as a post-graduate career.
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When Lieutenant Colonel Green returned to the Naval Academy to serve as Director of Player Development for the football program, not much had changed. A large majority of Navy football players were still selecting surface warfare, aviation or some other field.
Navy has 34 football seniors this season and 16 of them have received Marine Corps as a service assignment. Travis Kerchner will train to become a Marine Corps pilot, but the other 15 all selected Marine Corps Ground.
Green, who spent two years in an administrative support role before being promoted to an on-field coach, is heartened that so many football players are seeing the value of the service he swears by.
Navy assistant coach Robert Green played football at Navy from 1994 through 1996. (Phil Hoffmann / HANDOUT)
"I do take a lot of pride in the surge of Navy football players going Marine Corps," said Green, now in his fourth season as the program"s secondary coach. "It was a goal of mine and Gunnery Sergeant Owens to tell the story of the Marines and recruit players into the corps."
Timothy Owens served as Assistant Director of Player Development for Navy football for five years and along with Green was an important mentor to many of the Class of 2019 football players. Both officers felt certain the Marine Corps was the perfect fit for young men who had just spent four years operating selflessly as part of a team.
"I think the Marine Corps is a natural progression for these guys. They are taught to grind as Navy football players and that same mentality is needed as a Marine," Green said. "Marines pride themselves on being tough, physical and disciplined. Those are the exact traits you find in a Navy football player."
It is said there is no such thing as a former Marine. The proper term is Marine Corps retired. That"s because you always remain a Marine at heart and Green embodies that spirit despite hanging up the uniform when he was hired as an assistant by head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
Capital Gazette sportswriters Dave Broughton and Bill Wagner discuss Navy football. This week"s episode looks back at the Tulsa win and looks ahead at the Tulane game.
Green, a 1998 graduate of the academy, served 20 years in the Marine Corps – mostly as a logistics officer. He served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq among numerous other far-flung locations. The Atlanta native was highly-decorated, earning a handful of medals for meritorious service.
Green is not the only retired or active Marine Corps officer currently involved with Navy football. Wide receivers coach Mick Yokitis and Director of Football Operations Brian Blick are also products of that branch of the service.
Captain Michael Walsh, a former Navy football player just like Blick and Yokitis, is the current Director of Player Development. Staff Sergeant Julian Orozco-Colorado, the assistant director of player development, is another Marine. So is Colonel Jeffrey Smitherman, the officer representative for Navy football.
"We have a lot of Marine Corps mentors around here and I just love how they handle things in a business-like manner and how they keep everyone together," Navy starting slotback Tre Walker said. "I would say the overall atmosphere and type of people are what led me to choose Marine Corps. It"s a lot like the brotherhood we have with football except in a slightly different aspect."
Five former Navy football players serving as graduate assistants while on temporary assignment duty at the academy will soon begin their Marine Corps training. They are Micah Thomas, Darryl Bonner, Seth White, D.J. Palmore and Brandon Jones.
"I definitely think the Marine Corps is the logical carryover for these players. I"m biased, but I think out of all the service selections it"s the closest thing to Navy football," Walsh said. "It"s the same tough mindset as well as the same general structure."
Capt. Walsh explained that platoons are very much like the position groups within a football team and the head coach is basically the equivalent of a company commander. A typical Division I football team is approximately the same size as a Marine Corps company.
"The Marine Corps is all about physical fitness and mental toughness and all these guys possess those two characteristics," said Walsh, who served as a platoon commander and battery commander before being assigned to the academy. "I think a lot of Navy football players want to be challenged. Service-wise, they are seeking just what the Marine Corps offers."
In 2013 and 2014, a total of 16 Navy football players (eight each year) elected to go Marine Corps. That number increased to 11 in 2015 and has been on the rise ever since. This year"s crop of candidates brings to 59 the total number of football players from the last four graduating classes to choose the Marine Corps.
Coach Green recalls that slotback Marcus Thomas was the football player who really got the ball rolling among the 2014 graduates. Linebacker Joe Worth was the driving force the following year while team captain Bernie Sarra spearheaded the movement among the Class of 2016. Standout quarterback Will Worth led the charge of 18 football players into the Marine Corps a year ago.
"This campaign has begun to take on a life of its own," Green said. "It"s gotten to the point that I"ve come to expect the toughest guys on the team will go Marine. It is an attitude that is starting feed itself."
It makes sense that many of Navy"s leading tacklers in recent years – notably inside linebackers Micah Thomas (2016, 2017), Jordan Drake (2014) and Cody Peterson (2013) along with safety Lorentez Barbour (2015) – became Marines.
Wide receivers Tyler Carmona and Jamir Tillman, both of whom led the team in catches and were also known as bone-crunching blockers, are currently in the Marine Corps.
"Automatically, without a doubt, if a linebacker chooses to go Navy I have to question that. Same goes for the quarterbacks and fullbacks. Those are all tough guys that belong in the Marine Corps," Green said.
Navy quarterback Zach Abey (9) gathers with teammates after the game against Tulsa Nov. 17, 2018, in Annapolis. (Patrick Semansky / AP)
So Green was not surprised to see current starting quarterback Zach Abey, starting fullback Anthony Gargiulo and starting inside linebackers Hudson Sullivan and Taylor Heflin all select Marine Corps Ground.
"I think that"s the nature of who our kids are and what they"re all about. We have tough kids who are great Americans," said head coach Ken Niumatalolo, emphasizing that every job in the military is difficult and challenging.
Green said the key factor in encouraging Navy football players to pursue a Marine Corps career is exposure. To that end, Green and Walsh have annually taken rising senior football players with an interest to Marine Corps Base Quantico for a week-long training exercise.
Abey said a large contingent of Navy football players were divided into squads and actually played some war games. It was meant to give the prospective Marines an understanding of The Basic School, the six-month training that is conducted at Quantico.
"We spend some time in the field, shoot the rifles and do the whole deal of staying overnight in the woods. We had different squads and game-planned attacks and actually shot blank rounds at each other," Abey said. "It was really cool, a really fun training. We had all the Marine Corps equipment and got a taste of what will be doing during TBS."
That introductory training session is known as Camp Leatherneck and is purposefully designed to be difficult. Gargiulo said it rained almost nonstop during the week the football players participated and he joked about cooking food in a bag and eating dried crackers.
"Actually, being out in the woods wasn"t the bad part. It was all the long-distance running and not having a nice Italian meal ready for you after a long day in the field," Gargiulo said with a chuckle.
Abey had a feeling he wanted to serve in the Marine Corps upon arrival at the Naval Academy and that was only reinforced by talking to numerous former teammates that had already taken that route.
"It"s something I wanted to do coming in here. Just seeing so many members of The Brotherhood choose Marine Corps really influenced me," Abey said. "Seeing the summer trainings at Quantico, I thought it was really equivalent to Navy football."
Sullivan initially thought about joining the aviation community, but gradually changed his mind after hearing about the Marine Corps from inside linebacker predecessors such as Cody Petersen and Winn Howard. The northern Virginia native, who did not grow up too far from Quantico, also learned a lot from the summer training session.
"When we were down there they told us about the close resemblance between the Marine Corps and football and it makes a lot of sense," Sullivan said. "Everything we learned on the football field can be implemented into the Marine Corps."
Of course, the common misconception about Marine Corps Ground is that officers commissioned from the Naval Academy ultimately find themselves manning the trenches in Afghanistan, Iraq or some other dangerous combat zone. While that is certainly the case in many instances, there are other avenues within that branch of service.
"That"s part of the myth, that all Marines are on the front lines and we aren"t smart guys," said Coach Green, noting the corps has 30-plus military occupational service (MOS) choices. "That"s part of the education process. There are all sorts of jobs within the Marine Corps."
Gargiulo acknowledged that his parents, Sal and Lisa, had serious concerns about the high probability he would be sent into harm"s way.
"I think they will be okay because I told them there were other jobs other than being on the front lines and kicking in doors," said Gargiulo, who is considering the logistics path. "I was going to be happy no matter what because I have a job. I"m going to be set for life afterwards and I can"t complain about that."
Senior slotback Tre Walker showed this past Saturday that he has regained his sprinter"s speed after finally shedding the knee brace he has worn since coming back from reconstructive surgery.
Walker had to get Gunnery Sergeant Owens to speak with his mother, who was worried her son would wind up dodging enemy fire.
"My mom was definitely a little nervous at first. She talked to Gunny Owens and once he explained everything to her she was okay with it," said Walker, a Texarkana, Texas native.
Green feels comfortable with having large numbers of Navy football players enter the Marine Corps because he is absolutely certain they know exactly what they are getting into.
"They don"t walk in blind at all. They all go through that Leatherneck course during the summer leading up to senior year and live out in the hills of Quantico. "I"ve been talking to this group of seniors about the service since they were plebes. I know all these guys are going to go out and do great things."
Green believes a Navy football player will rise to the very top of the Marine Corps. General Robert Neller is the current Commandant of the Marine Corps and serves on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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"I"ve had dreams that the Marine Corps will one day have a Navy football player at the helm as commandant or in some other senior leadership role," he said.
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